Karen Trebilcock

eing a cow, and a farmer, at Bruce Dinnington’s at Dacre in Southland is about living the good life.

The cows wander into the dairy when they want to, unhassled by a dog or a motorbike, to be milked by one of the six Lely Astronauts, fed grain, get to enjoy a back massage with the cow brushes and then wander out again to the pasture.

Or, during spring and autumn nights, and in the winter, instead of going outside they find a comfy bed and more good things to eat in the free-stall barn area.

Bruce gets up about 7am each day, checks the machines, changes the filter, washes down the concrete in the post-milk area and gives some of the cows a pat on his way out to breakfast.

Afterwards he’s back washing down the concrete in the pre-milk area which is usually free now of cows and for the rest of the day he can look after the farm with a final check of the robots before 6pm.

An alarm on his phone alerts him to any problems and, if he wants, he can see what is going on in the barn simply by checking the live camera feed wherever he is, again on his phone.

‘Certainly, Europe is looking very closely at what Bruce is doing. Over there farmers get a premium paid for milk from cows which are at least four hours a day on pasture.’

After milking cows for all his life, with less than 12 months off from when the robots started the job for him, he can finally now straighten his fingers out once again.

“The body really isn’t designed to get up at 3am every morning to milk cows,” he says.

“I used to wear out four pairs of gumboots every year when we had the herringbone. Walking on concrete especially isn’t good for you.”

He reckons robotic milking will give his cows an extra couple of years of life. It will probably give him many more.

A love of cows has long been in the family with Bruce’s dad Alan milking his father’s 20 cows before going to school each morning on the property.

But the wool boom hit in the 1950s and sheep became the focus until, in 1974, Alan built a six-aside lowline double-up herringbone dairy.

Now in his 70s, Alan is still the tractor driver on the farm and his wife Noeline, Bruce’s mum, still helps out raising the calves.

But his aging work force was one of the reasons Bruce started thinking about a robotic milking system.

He had bought a neighbouring property and built a 50-bail rotary there adding to the farm, milking 550 cows and employing two staff, but he was worried about “future proofing the business”.

Also, the cows he was breeding were producing too much milk for a twice-a-day system.

Robotics was the obvious answer.

The rotary and the land it’s on was sold and in November 2017 the foundations of the new barn building were laid. The rest of the structure started going up in January and it was a six-month build with the first of the now 350-cow herd being milked by Lely Astronauts in July last year.

The building is 135 metres by 42m with milking taking up about a quarter of the area and the rest an AI/treatment area and a free stall barn.

It’s the first hybrid pasture/barn setup, Lely’s New Zealand key account manager Trevor Ward believes.

All other five Lely robotic milking operations in Southland and the 22 in the country (almost 100 robots) are either barn only or pasture only.

For Bruce, who has had a wintering barn in the past, it made sense to combine the two.

“I think it’s unique not only for New Zealand, but also in the rest of the world,” Trevor says.

“Certainly, Europe is looking very closely at what Bruce is doing. Over there farmers get a premium paid for milk from cows which are at least four hours a day on pasture.”

Bruce says if the cows had a choice they would stay in the building all day, all year. He’s had to put chains on some of the gates so the cows don’t lift them off the hinges so they can stay inside.

And it’s not only Southland’s cold southerlies they’re trying to get out of, it’s also the summer heat and glare.

“Wind chill they don’t like but they also don’t like intense sunshine. And the more I look after them I think the softer they’re becoming,” Bruce says.

But it’s not only the cows Bruce is looking after. The 210-hectare flat farm has heavy soils and by stopping pugging in the season’s shoulders and during winter it’s allowing the clover to flourish – so much so that he no longer puts on nitrogen, instead using only 375kg/ha of 15% Potash Sulphur Super in the spring.

Effluent from the operation is spread on the whole farm using an umbilical which Bruce owns, churning the solids and liquids together and dribbling it on top of the soil.

The dry cows get to spend the winter inside too, at the other end of the barn separated from the milkers.

Cow mattresses in the free stall area keeps the cows comfortable and cuts down on mastitis he’s found.

When outside, there are four paddocks set up for every day with Lely Grazeway changing the direction the cows go every six hours.

“They wander in and out when they want to from the paddocks. They use the same lane, there’s no need to double lane the farm.

“One cow will be wandering towards the dairy and the other will be going back to the paddock and they might stop to have a gossip on the way, but they always get to where they should be going.

“Some nights I have to clear 20 or 30 cows out of a paddock but most of the time they’ve all gone.

“And they know when the gate changes are coming up. They’re very clever.”

He says family and hierarchal groups are also evident with one set of twins inseparable.

Training the cows to use the robots took about three days.

He’s only been woken so far three or four times in the middle of the night by the alarm system.

“I think the cows are used to being in the Astronaut box because we raise them using the Lely calf feeders. With our heifers we’ve found it’s far easier training them to use the robots than trying to get them to use a rotary dairy.”

Bruce’s cows produce on average 40 litres (3.2kg milksolids) a day in the spring and even at drying off can still do 32 litres so reducing the amount they have to walk, and allowing them access to milking when they want is good for their udders and their feet.

He splits the calvings, doing seven weeks of AI starting November and again in June and is finding autumn calving cows to have less problems and milk better.

“The grass has more guts in it in summer and autumn than late winter and early spring so they recover so much better and they also milk better.”

Autumn calving cows peak higher and also have another natural peak in spring.

He has stopped using bulls and does the AI himself, with the robots drafting the cows following milking using the information from the cow collars showing how much they have walked each day (cows in heat walk further seeking out other cows in heat to ride).

Semen is from World Wide Sires with Bruce preferring the overseas Holstein genetics for their udder strength and overall size.

“My top cows are producing 65 litres a day in spring and the whole herd averages between 650 and 700kg MS/year.

Their bodyweight is about 550-650kg.”

Pregnant cows get 60 days off before calving but cows which don’t get in calf keep on being milked and Bruce has five cows that have been milking since spring 2017 and are still doing more than 40 litres a day.

“There’s no reason why a cow has to calf every year and producing a calf every year really takes a toll on them.

“I think I’ll be able to get two or three more years of life out of each of my cows because they don’t have to calve every year and because they’re being fully fed all year round.”

And with fewer culls, there are fewer replacements needed with only 50 calves reared this year and Bruce thinks that might drop down in the future to 30, reducing costs.

Extra calves are sold to dairy and beef farmers in the area, with there never being a problem finding buyers.

All the balage is made on farm by Bruce and his dad and the cows are fed a dairy pellet and molasses mix while they are getting milked which also includes minerals. They get between 2kg and 3kg

of grain a day depending on their production.

In the self-contained operation, young stock are all kept on farm. Autumn-born calves are kept inside until spring.

Cows with high somatic cells, with the robot identifying which quarter, are drafted out for treatment.

Production information is also available for each cow for each milking, plus its weight, stopping the need for herd  testing.

And the system is a hit with Fonterra with tankers able to arrive at the farm at any time.

A buffer tank is used while the main vat is being emptied and the wash going through with a detailed list of instructions on how to do it on the vat for the tanker driver to follow.

“Often I’ll see a tanker at the farm  at 6.30am, filling up here before they can go to the next farm at 7am.

“Compared to other countries, where about 80-90% of new investments are in robotic milking systems, New Zealand has had a slow take off,” Trevor says.

“There will be a day when all cows will be milked automatically here.

“We’ve got a couple of farmers looking at the moment. It seems to happen in clusters.”

“One farm will change over and the neighbours will all watch and when the robots are not thrown out a couple of years later they think about doing it too,” he says.

Bruce says the cost of the six robots was slightly more than a 50-bail rotary.

“There are so many cost savings and production benefits using the system, besides the obvious labour cost,” Trevor says.

It takes less electricity to run the operation than to run the rotary and half the amount of water.

“Really, for a lot of farmers, it is the fear of the unknown that I think holds them back but the system is reliable, it does work.”

The Lely Astronaut robots, Lely Juno feed pusher, and Lely Calm calf feeder were installed and are serviced by the Lely Centre in Southland, part of the JJ Group.


  • Effluent Production is 35 litre per cow per day (DNZ standard allowance is for 70 l per cow per day, for pond calculation etc.)
  • Average milk production increase of 15% over two years
  • Water usage, total water usage 4.6 l/milking/cow (pre wash, cup rinse, plant cleaning). Total for 300 cow, 4 robot system 3200l, yard wash additional but in a new install quite a bit smaller
  • Somatic cell count average again drop of 61% from conventional
  • Empty rates drop on average 7% (more days in milk etc)
  • Mastitis cases drop on average 65%
  • With the information on a per milking basis, all farms have reduced cow numbers and increased total milk production. (Gemmell farm 19% drop in cow numbers, 16% total milk solids production increase over 3 years).